Index to Current Series
“Thought – Act – Habit – Character – Destiny”
If one man conquer in battle,
A thousand times thousand men,
And if another conquer himself,
He is the greatest of conquerors. Dhammapada 103.
The defining verse of this series reads, “Sow a thought and reap an act. Sow an act and reap a habit. Sow a habit and reap a character…” Then it finishes with Destiny, but we are not there yet. Although our habit patters to a large extend define our character, they do not do so completely. In the next two weeks I want to round out the view of the character as a system of components. In fact character is a composite not only of habits, but also of thoughts and acts that may not have been repeated enough to have consolidated into habits. So as you sow a thought or sow an act you may also be reaping a character directly. In addition a character, like a character in a drama, is embedded in a physical and social context, that is, has a role to play in the ongoing soap opera of life that we call samsara. And then karmic fruit is all the while accumulating waiting to ripen according to the Law of Karma. This last topic I will postpone until next week since it is easily subject to misunderstanding.
Habits. In summary of the last two episodes, habits arise from repeated thoughts or acts to become lodged in the character. For instance, repeatedly acting out of lust makes one a lustful person. Much of Buddhist practice is concerned with shaping an increasingly more skillful set of habits. Habits may also be learned from others or be instilled genetically. Buddhism also teaches that habits may carry over from a previous life by rebirth. I will take up the topic of rebirth in a couple of uposatha days, when we consider Destiny. One’s habits have a profound effect on one’s emotive condition, propelling one figuratively into a life in heaven or hell.
Habits also have a way of spawning new, related, habits. As the Buddha points out:
Few are those people in the world who, when acquiring lavish wealth don’t become intoxicated and heedless, don’t become greedy for sensual pleasures, and don’t mistreat other beings. Many are those who, when acquiring lavish wealth, become intoxicated and heedless … SN 3.6, similar SN 3.7
Acts. Habitual acts are known in the Pali literature as cumulative acts (acinnakamma). Recall that I described them as being like dust particles that accumulate on top surfaces ot things. Their imprint is gradual but individually they are barely notices. Other acts are either heavy acts (garudakamma) or light acts (lakunakamma).
Heavy acts are most commonly heinous actions like murder or causing a rift in the Sangha. Apparently the only skillful heavy acts mentioned in the literature are the jhanas, the progressive states of meditative absorption, and these are actually acts of mind, not of body and speech, so actually are confined to the level of thought. Heavy acts are always assumed to make a huge imprint on the character, generally described in terms of fruition. If you have murdered someone this is likely to haunt you, for instance, in years to come. Habitual heavy acts are the worst of all (except for habitual jhana, which is the best of all). A hit man or a trader in slaves would fall into this category. Now, it probably should be observed that many people do heinous things, such as declaring wars, or embezzling from employee retirement funds, and yet it seems to affect them no more than playing a winning game of Monopoly would. Generally is such cases it is assumed in the literature that the fruition is deferred til after rebirth. Whether that is an appropriate account or verifiable, I will discuss in a couple of weeks.
Light acts generally have only a slight imprint on the character. This might be something like popping a chip into your mouth or raising your eyebrows.
Thoughts. It is at the level of thoughts that skill and non-skill are determined. Recall from a few episodes ago that unskillful thoughts are rooted in greed, aversion or delusion, they are stressful, they easily distort reality, they lead to harmful actions and they inhibit the perfection of character, the path toward Nirvana. If your thoughts are skillful, your actions will be skillful and your habit set will evolve in a felicitous direction.
Some of your thoughts are particularly significant in their pull on, or inclination of, a great deal of your thinking. Your values, aspirations and faith, for instance, and also your private vows. For instance, we can embrace generosity as a value and vow to be generous at every opportunity. This is different than simply trying to act on skillful and discard unskillful intentions because it has a certain focus that can begin to characterize your acts and habit patterns. If you instead embrace renunciation, your focus will be a bit different. Similarly infatuation with a particular person, to take an unskillful thought, can give actions and habit patterns yet another character, one that will be more self-serving.
Also significant are reactions to experiences that we would call traumatic. For instance a bitter disappointment can shift your values. Suppose you suffer a great financial loss, and you ask friends and relatives to help you, you apply for government assistance and no one helps you. You end up homeless, and have to beg for survival, and even that is difficult. Then a rich uncle who you had not known of dies and you are back on your feet. Now, deeply embittered, you are not likely to value generosity to others. Witnessing a gruesome death may haunt you for years. Being the accidental cause of a death may have a similar result, even though your involvement might not be karmic, that is there may be no intention on your part, for instance in backing your car out of the driveway as you always do you discover that on this occasion a neighbor’s child is trying to recover a ball wedged under the wheel. The suffering that ensues for you might be much like the ripening of karma.
The most significant thought are our views because they define the world in which you think and act, they provide justifications, the impression that your motives are pure when they are faulty, the whole conceptual framework that makes what you are thinking or doing meaningful. The Buddha said:
All unwholesome states have their root in ignorance, they converge upon ignorance, and by the abolishing of ignorance, all the other unwholesome states are abolished. SN 20.1
Ignorance significantly shows up in the Four Distortions of Reality: seeing permanence in impermanence, happiness in suffering, selfhood in non-self, and beauty in the ugly. Of these, the view that you are a self with a degree of autonomy from the rest of the world, which in contrast is a source of resources and dangers, underlies our greed and aversion. Without this view greed and aversion have no basis for arising. Much of Buddhist practice centers around gaining insight or greater wisdom as we examine and correct our mistaken views, with profound effects on our thinking and behavior, our habits and character.
Samsara. We are born into lack, beginning with missing hugs, with hunger, diaper rash, and dog slobber in the eye. Sometimes we are sick but we cannot even foresee tragic losses that lie ahead, nor the relentless aging that will bring us ever closer to death. Soon we develop a sense of individual identity, but even that will turns into a nagging doubt about our significance, as if we can be swept away from the world and never missed.
And yet in a few years the world will be our oyster! It will be like a candy shop full of delicious sights, sounds and tastes that we want to make ours. We begin a life of toys, electronic gadgets, later power tools, fast cars, fast women, fast food. From a young age our consumer culture with its relentless marketing of stuff cheer us on. We later learn to scheme, present ourselves favorably, exhaust ourselves at work, eliminate competition, sometimes steal or lie, whatever it takes to satisfy our needs. We begin to build up stature, to become somebody, somebody with money and influence. Then when we thought we would feel happy with what we have become instead we feel all the more threatened, since we have more to lose and to protect than before. The stock market, the kid riding his bike past our shiny new car, the gossiping voices that suddenly become quiet as we enter the room, the storm in the county where we enjoy our cabin on weekends, the irritable boss, all become threats that we counter with a larger portfolio, a two-car garage, a more loyal network of friends, an insurance policy, a position of more authority. Feeling even less secure, we don’t realize we have been slurped into a vortex of ever greater gain and threat.
Our greed and aversion entangles us more and more in a web of unskillful impulses and habits and entangles others in the same, as others try to match our greed lest we take what they have or might want, try to match our hatred in self-defense, and seek revenge where our plans are most fruitful. Envy, resentment at the injustice, stealing a client, angry words. As our greed robs and impoverishes others and our fear and insecurity turns to hate and arouses fear, the world punches back, it tries to bring down what we have accomplished. All the while our search for personal advantage sets a poor example for others, destroying trust and ideals and turns others’ reserves of skillful intentions to cynicism.
We start to divide the world into Good and Evil, what I like and what I dislike, what is reassuring and what is threatening, what is an instrument for me and what is an obstacle, who likes me and who dislikes me. There is *Me* at the center of a network of causality that includes these other elements and nothing else. The rest of the world has become irrelevant, we become indifferent to it. We share our distorted reality with others, or perhaps absorb it from others, as we form allegiances and spread infectious gossip. Shared, this reality becomes even more exaggerated and inevitably others are violated and angered by its biases and prejudices.
And what of the pleasures life offers? We distract ourselves with parties, games and public entertainment and private sexual intrigue. There is enthusiasm, laughter, thrills but there is always tension underneath. We get fat and drink too often, and still we cannot wipe the lack away. We love and, while briefly rousing, there is no peace to be gained, either we stop or they stop and it turns to tragedy, sometimes hatred, depression, suicide, murder. Tension is the stuff of our lives, our sense of lack only grows, we even begin to lack kindness for those close to us, our feelings are blocked, we are emotionally dead. This is what they must mean by quiet desperation
I have been describing the typical unexamined life, driven by unrecognized forces. Buddhist practice, on the other hand, is simple: Just make every moment a gift. In every moment let go of whatever unskillfulness is trying to arise, embrace the skillful, and act accordingly, with virtue, like a buddha, over and over until it becomes habitual.
Unfortunately it takes a lot of work to gain the thrust needed to escape the bonds of samsara. We need to overcome not only our own deep-seated habits and viewpoints, which might start to appear possible when we go into the seclusion of a meditation retreat or a monastery, but we must at the same time overcome our worldly obligations, the expectations others have of us, all the ongoing stories we were cast some time ago to play a role in, that keep us forcibly enmeshed in our old patterns of thought and action.
We need systematically to go through our lives and cut each bond which compels us to act unskillfully; well maybe keep a few that we just treasure too much. “I don’t need that; I can dispense with that; I’m just not going to play that game any more, you go right ahead.” The more you study samsara, to recognize its illogic, the easier this process will be; things will begin to drop of themselves the way children shed toys as they grow into adolescence. In fact, you will find that almost everything you had assumed before is exactly backwards. You gain happiness not by grasping, but by giving. You gain security not by building a bigger fence but by taking down the fence that you have. You gain self-assurance not by becoming a very important self, but by becoming small and eventually disappearing altogether. We live in a Looking Glass World. Things are not as they seem.